American Experience: Clinton

American Experience: Clinton

American Experience: Clinton debuts tonight on PBS at 9 p.m. Eastern and Pacific, 8 p.m. Central and Mountain in most markets. You should check local listings.

To celebrate Presidents' Day, American Experience offers a four-hour recap of the life and career of  the most recent two-term U. S. President who can go overseas without worrying that he might have a sack thrown over his head and wake up in The Hague. (He is also, as the narration reminds us, the last Democratic President to serve two full terms since Franklin Roosevelt.) It says something about the unique mix of reactions that Bill Clinton inspires in people that, as soon as the talking heads start rolling in, you realize that it's only by identifying the political affiliations of the speakers that you can be certain whether what they say is meant as praise or condemnation. “How many second chances does any one person deserve?” says a woman at the beginning. “Bill Clinton's view is, as many second chances as a person's willing to take.” 

This sounds a lot like the attitude underlying a lot of Clinton hatred: that he's someone who, having firmly established his unworthiness to share a planet with good people, refuses to do the only right thing and find a rock to crawl under and die there. It turns out that she's Dee Dee Myers, Clinton's first White House press secretary, and she's paying admiring tribute to her boss' indomitable spirit. A ferociously smiling man says that, after Clinton was re-elected in 1996, he was unquestionably the legitimately elected President of the United States. This sounds perfectly reasonable, though you may wonder why he felt that it was worth saying. It helps to know that the speaker, Republican Representative Peter King, is the kind of public servant who likes to go on talk shows and grin like a lobotomy patient with a feather in his shorts while saying that, while he himself has no reason to think that President Obama is a Kenyan-born Muslim with direct ties to al-Qaeda, he doesn't know that it's not true, and would certainly never be so rude as to argue with people who say that it is so. This enhances the likelihood that this is probably his clever way of implying that, for his first four years in office, Clinton's presidency was somehow questionable from the ground up and illegitimate from the roof down on the other side.

The show itself is a good Cliff's Notes account of Clinton's presidency. I started to write “life and presidency,” but the show left me convinced that would be redundant. Even while struggling to avoid tainting the material with the kind of personal viewpoint that people turn to PBS to avoid, no matter how porridge-y documentaries can be without it, it does make it seem as if Clinton's pre-1993 existence was a stop-and-start dress rehearsal for the big show. That may be the most logical conclusion you can draw about someone who became President at 46, after first running for office before he was 30; becoming governor of his home state, Arkansas, at 32; achieving has-been status when he was voted out of office two years later, and finally nailing down the second-chances narrative good and hard when he came back after two years in the wilderness to return to the governorship and hold onto it for another decade. Despite the presence of Gail Sheehy, the nightmare queen of psychobabble, the script doesn't allow for as much Oedipal speculation to account for Clinton's drive and character flaws as you might fear, though if you invite friends over and make a drinking game out of how many times the interview subjects mention that Clinton badly wants to be loved, you'll wake up in the morning with a splitting hangover and a bunch of people passed out all over your living room.

Because Clinton spent pretty much every minute of his life, from his adolescent days on, running for something without ever taking a break to overcome polio or charge up San Juan Hill, the show will be most exciting to political junkies who can get off on a stirringly wonkish account of seeing the master's legislative kung fu skills in action. American Experience's presidential documentaries tend to get made by people who've committed Edmund Wilson's The Wound And The Bow to memory, so the ideal subject does need a crippling setback to overcome. (If you've seen enough of these kinds of documentaries, you already know that, if you elect someone who's never failed at anything or suffered a day in his life, you end up with Herbert Hoover.) Clinton, of course, had to endure the death of his father and the abuse his mother suffered at the hands of an alcoholic stepfather, but American Experience is probably right to locate the real traumatic experiences that shaped his destiny in meaningful ways in his political career: the lost governorship that he had to reclaim and the bungled and besieged first two years of his presidency, which culminated in the 1994 midterm elections. That was the year that Newt Gingrich “nationalized” the midterms, won a House majority for the Republican party, and set off waves of tittering in the media that the President was not “relevant.”

In the telling here, Clinton's tickertape-parade year was 1995, when, reeling from disappointment and humiliating setbacks, he rose to the challenge of healing the nation after the Oklahoma City bombing and established the Dayton Peace Accords, an act that, in the words of the narration blandly intoned by Campbell Scott, “restored his standing as leader of the free world.” He then basically won re-election, a little less than a year before the actual 1996 election, by calling Gingrich and the Republicans' bluff over the budget deal, allowing them to shut down the government and encouraging Gingrich to treat himself to a nationally televised pity party. Gingrich's rise to power and the flameout that almost immediately followed it provide most of the high comic moments here. There's a classic TV image from the 1995 State of the Union address, when Gingrich was still riding high; sitting behind Clinton, Gingirch wears an expression that seems to say, “I appreciate this guy keeping my chair warm for me, but I wish he'd shut up so I could back go to the Oval Office and re-measure the drapes.” A year later, Gingrich and whomever he was married to that year are in the front row at Clinton's inaugural, listening to the President say that “the American people return to office a President of one party and a Congress of another. Surely they did not do this to advance the politics of petty bickering and extreme partisanship they plainly abhor.” Gingrich then slaps his mittens together, though this time he's wearing the expression of a man who is obliged to publicly applaud a joke about how fat his mama is.

Part of the fun of a show like this is seeing who's taken the time to sit for an interview and gauge how nervous they are about what's likely to be surrounding their assurances that whatever they did at the time was the most correct and brilliant thing they possibly could have done. The Republicans are represented by King and former U.S. Senator (my former U.S. Senator when I was growing up in Mississippi, ladies and gentlemen!) Trent Lott, who both must have agreed to clear their schedules when they realized that this might give them an opportunity to get some subtle digs in at Gingrich. Lott, whose own career was torpedoed by his remarks that the country would be a better place today if the rabid racial segregationist Strom Thurmond had been elected President, allows the camera to catch him saying that, before the '94 midterms, House Republicans had been “an abused, mistreated minority.” It's kind of sweet that he's determined to go to his grave Not Getting It. (At some point, the filmmakers must have decided that they definitely didn't owe Lott any favors, because at the end, they include what feels like half an hour of him saying, over and over again, that he still can't figure out why so many people were willing to tolerate an adulterous President, so long as he seemed to be doing his job okay. He sounds like a robot programmed to generate cluelessness on the same topic until somebody pulls his plug.) 

There are peculiarities, too, that make you wonder about the stuff on the cutting-room floor: Was it awful, or did it just not fit the narrative? Sidney Blumenthal and Kenneth Starr both drop in for a cup of coffee. It's hard to believe that neither of them said anything more interesting than the longer testimony offered by onetime Clinton fans ranging from Robert Reich to Lawrence O'Donnell, which is very heavy on the disappointed expectations. A lot of people offer variations on the thought that, while Clinton was a hell of a good president who did a lot of good, he should have done far more, and maybe would have if he hadn't succumbed to his own gross appetites. Refusing to give an inch, Lawrence O'Donnell says that he can't even feel sympathetic toward Clinton for what his enemies put him through, because “You can never blame your enemies for doing what your enemies will predictably do.” Since I would never accuse Lawrence O'Donnell of being a mealy-mouthed showboat who just spits out whatever drivel flashes through his cerebral cortex without really meaning it, I guess he thinks that all the blame for 9/11 should go to the city of New York for having agreed to house a building that tall. He might not want to share this deeply held belief with his MSNBC audience anytime soon.

With a lot of help from the “literary agent” and dearly beloved grandmother of Gomez Addams, Lucianne Goldberg, the show does make a halfway decent job of making the Lewinsky affair, and how it led to a popular and functioning President of the United States being impeached because he'd fibbed about the extracurricular activities of his penis, kind of coherent. What it can't do, even in the course of four hours, is account for the bottomless depth of loathing that Clinton inspired in people, so that this talk of whether his election was “legitimate” or not and even a four-year, multi-million-dollar “investigation” that finally couldn't find any better reason for its own existence than an affair that began and ended long after the investigation itself started, might actually make sense to some people. (Starr is shown trying to explain why he thought that what he ended up with was worth his time and attention, but he isn't shown being asked how he could have justified using tax dollars to revive the discarded inquiry into whether the Clintons had Vince Foster whacked.) 

If there's anything that rankles about most of what's said here, it's the idea, which has always been endemic in analyses of Clinton, that the man himself is mysterious in ways that I'm not sure he is. More than one observer notes that Clinton seemed to be resourceful at doing what he needed to do to stay alive politically but that he also seemed to have sincere goals and things he believed in. The thought that he might have thought it important to learn to stay alive politically because he had sincere goals and things he believed in is beyond their ability to grasp, just as Robert Reich, who says that he believed that Clinton was being set up until he learned that he really did have an affair with Monica Lewinsky, has trouble with the elementary fact that Clinton did have an affair but also was really being set up. One fearless reporter bastard even floats the notion that maybe the real reason Bill and Hillary stay married is that they love each other. (F. Scott Fitzgerald said that the true test of genius is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in the mind at the same time and still be able to function normally. Not a lot of geniuses here.) There are several comments to the effect that Bill Clinton just seemed shady, somehow, because he was smart and glib and always had an excuse, or something. (Peter Lorre, in The Maltese Falcon: “You always have a very smooth explanation for everything.” Humphrey Bogart: “What do you want me to do, learn to stutter?") There's also Lucianne Goldberg, sitting in her sunless room with her petrified wedding cake and her boy Pip, insisting that Hillary Clinton is "terrifying" because she was "pushy” and "could never get her hair figured out." (The most personally engaging of all the talking heads here, by the length of a light year or two, is White House Council Bernie Nussbaum, who, with his New York croak and seen-it-all manner, could be the little brother of Hesh Rabkin on The Sopranos.)

There's also a passing reference to the way Clinton seemed, to many Republicans and other squares, to embody everything they despised about the '60s. To have really delved into this, the show would have probably had to throw off its proper-PBS-documentary chains and, well, get personal. But there is one image that I'd never seen before that seemed to address this in a meaningful way, though if the filmmakers had had the same reaction to it, it might not have been left in. It's a photo of Clinton from his college days. He's the spitting image of James Widdowes as Hoover in Animal House, the guy who, after the Deltas had trashed the big parade and smashed the stage on which the college dean had been standing, stuck his head in the wreckage and said, “Dean Wormer, do you think you could see clear to giving us just one more chance?”

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